Let’s play word association. Roc-A-Fella: Jay-Z …
And not much else really. Twenty-six-year old Chicago native Kanye
West has a little to say about the demise of the Roc in the form of
a solid and distinctive debut. Part concept album, mostly good
hip-hop, it’s clear that Kanye has a lot to say and knows
exactly how he wants to say it. In mainstream hip-hop, the
producer/rapper moniker has rarely yielded anything impressive.
Early purveyors of the field such as Puffy, Jermaine Dupri and
Timbaland offered nothing new with their individual efforts other
than thinly veiled vehicles for their beats, which fell prey to
monotony long before the tracklist was finished.

Laura Wong
Laura Wong
What are you looking at? (Courtesy of Def Jam)

While Kanye is not going to elevate the idea of producer/rapper
to the level of the singer/songwriter tradition on his own, The
College Drop Out
is at least a start. There really isn’t
a more lucid way for a rapper to get his undiluted message out than
to create his own specific aural environment. As an admitted
college dropout, Kanye makes clear his specific gripe with higher
education, and for three-quarters of the album, he manages the
impossible: He makes a hip-hop concept album.

Starting with an introduction that sets the theme, his ideas are
clearly laid out. “All Falls Down” examines consumerism
and “Through The Wire” burns with determination of a
musician striking out on his own. “Family Business”
captures the heartwarming dysfunction of a trip through the family
photo album. As always, the Ludacris-involved single “Breathe
In Breathe Out” is a mishap, as is the excessive use of
skits. While funny initially, they pad the album and slow down the
flow. The 12-minute autobiographical “Last Call” is
interesting once and its placement at the end of the album
thankfully prevents further listening.

The songs are strongly centered around disillusionment —
the college experience, religion, hip-hop and the struggle against
racism in the foreground. Yet the most humble part of all this is
that he politely passes over the gangsta bravado and
self-proclaimed greatness that is usually associated with
Roc-A-Fella for a more focused approach. If you’ve ever seen
a picture of Kanye, his pastel polo shirt style screams
middle-class pretty boy. He’s not trying to scare you with
his prison record or tell you he’s the best rapper ever. He
knows he’s not. Meet the self-educated, socially aware,
populist rapper.

As the owner of an extensive rap sheet of radio hits
(“Izzo,” “You Don’t Know My Name” and
“Stand Up”) the man obviously has his finger on the pop
sensibilities necessary for success.

The production on Drop Out is varied and keeps your head
nodding, the lyrics keep you smiling and the album entertains, all
with a bit of awareness. Kanye has managed to pull the magic act
that even his mentor, Jay-Z, never accomplished — to inject
the conscious within the commercial. Wasting no time, Kanye has
already named his next album Late Registration. I’m
already waiting.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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